A country of over a billion people obsessed with only two individuals—Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. It reflects the famine of leadership in a country that aspires to become a superpower. The UPA has a Cabinet of 33 members whose average age is well above 60, and is led by the 80-year-old Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. None of the ministers are considered leaders of tomorrow since they are perceived as ones who have betrayed the present. So, the debate and dialogue is now restricted to 43-year-old Rahul and the 63-year-old Gujarat Chief Minister, Modi.
Both have much in common. They are reclusive, surrounded by sycophants. Both are choosy about meeting or avoiding people. Both are secretive in their approach and agenda. Both want to be loved, respected and feared for either their pedigree or the post they hold and the power they have. Both want to be heard but avoid hearing others. Both select only platforms and audiences they like. On top of it, both have an arrogant streak that comes with the clean image and performance. Both are the least acceptable leaders to their allies, as the rhythm of their narrative is alien to the tune regional colleagues are used to. They are dealing with a highly divided electorate, which seeks answers on issues like how to fix fiscal policies that protect FDI and MNCs from paying legitimate taxes to how to ensure a proper drainage system. These scary expectations force both to skip the specifics and resort to polemics and generalities.
The similarities end there. Modi and Rahul are two extreme ends of India’s complex political landscape. Modi has served Gujarat for over a decade. His work and words speak louder than his acerbic—yet witty—speeches. From a humble servant of Gujarat, Modi now wants to repay the debt he says he owes India. For him, development is the only mantra for resolving all problems. Modi communicates with his audiences in his own language and through symbolic facial expressions.
The deadpan Rahul has been in active politics for almost a decade as well. He is known for his political adventurism and romance with the other India—Bharat. He doesn’t mind travelling by train to understand its diversity, complexity and potential. He even found a new lesson to learn by spending a night in a Dalit home, even though part of his Socialist chic involved the companionship of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. He makes a great impact on the media by addressing Parliament on issues that he thinks are more relevant than a stimulated Sensex. For Rahul, a participatory democracy is the perfect tool to lift India out of its current mess. He connects with people mostly in English or through well-rehearsed iPad presentations—though on occasion he has “lost it”. A search of his name on Google yields 48.9 million results, while Modi finds mention 29.3 million times. For a tech-savvy chief minister, it’s a comparison that is galling.
As the countdown to the next general election begins, both Rahul and Modi are caught in the crossfire not only between leaders in their own parties but also of corporate India. Rahul is the undisputed leader of his party. A Gandhi can only lead the government through remote control or by becoming Prime Minister. But no Gandhi will accept the top job unless the Congress acquires an absolute majority. A Gandhi can’t accept a situation where his or her wish is overturned by a regional satrap. Rahul is not Manmohan who would change according to the need of the moment.
Modi is equally inflexible. He knows how to dictate his agenda and mission. The current debate on the colour of the future revolves around two personalities and not the ideology they represent. Even they are confused as is evident from their chase for platforms which affords visibility but not votes. Modi and Rahul are now competing to grab corporate, youth and international attention. It gives them instant fame and endorsements. Both have forgotten that leaders who sought elitist endorsement have always lost voter confidence. It happened to Chandrababu Naidu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Amrinder Singh, Mulayam Singh and even Narasimha Rao. All were hailed as the champions of economic reform and modern India, but real India sent them packing. It is the correct interpretation and understanding of the past that will determine the future stature of both Rahul and Modi, and not the orchestra of applause they get at exclusive gatherings of fair-weather friends whose hands hold wads of currency notes but rarely have voter’s ink on their fingers.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla